Elizabeth Earl

‘1 percent’ rule reverts to July 31 for Peninsula setnetters

They’re not always counted numerically, but coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet are highly sought after by sport fishermen and commercial fishermen alike — and, naturally, lead to disagreements over who gets to harvest them and when. Though the most recent Board of Fisheries meeting was largely focused on the regulations on sockeye and king salmon fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet, concerns about coho fishing pulled the strings on some of the regulations, particularly for set gillnet fishermen on the east side of Cook Inlet. In particular, changes to the one percent rule — a rule established for the commercial fisheries in the area, largely designed to minimize commercial harvest of coho salmon — could cost commercial fishermen more time in the August each season. The board approved moving the 1 percent rule date back to July 31 on a 4-3 vote, with members John Jensen of Petersburg, Fritz Johnson of Dillingham and Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River voting against the change. Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon, aren’t as numerous in Cook Inlet as sockeye or pink salmon and aren’t as high-value as kings, but they’re still a highly prized species. In the commercial fishery, they were worth about $1.02 per pound last season, a little less than half as much as sockeye. In 2019, commercial fishermen across the area harvested about 164,859 coho salmon, with a little more than half landed via the drift gillnet fleet, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual management report. Silver salmon are worth big money in the sport fisheries around the Cook Inlet basin, too, with guides marketing trips from late July through September based on silvers. When the Kenai River king salmon run closes for sportfishing at the end of July, anglers turn most of their attention to silvers. The board rejected proposals to increase the Kenai daily sport bag limit of two coho in August to three fish. Anglers are allowed to harvest three Kenai coho per day starting Sept. 1. ADFG staff in past meetings have said they consider coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet to be fully allocated, meaning that they in order to increase harvest for one group without damaging the population, the allocation for another group would have to be reduced. However, there are a number of data gaps that made the board’s decisions on how to move coho around difficult. For one, there is no regular enumeration project on the Kenai River counting silver salmon — the last comprehensive population estimate ADFG has is from 2004. As part of an overall attempt to move more silver salmon toward in-river users, the board members passed a proposal to move the effective date of the 1 percent rule for East Side setnets back from Aug. 7 to July 31. Next season, if the setnet fleet collectively catches less than 1 percent of its total season harvest of sockeye salmon in two consecutive periods after July 31, the fishery will automatically close prior to its normal closing date of Aug. 15. “Everyone is worried about overexploiting the coho because we don’t know (enough),” said board member Israel Payton during the deliberation process in Anchorage. “ I was comfortable leaving it as it was a few years ago … I thought it was appropriate. I think the in-river users think two fish is appropriate, and the in-river users think the one percent rule should be back to the July 31 date.” The 1 percent rule went into effect after the 2014 board meeting, and the effective date moved from July 31 to Aug. 7 after the 2017 meeting. Payton, who voted against moving the date at the 2017 meeting, said he thought the board made the wrong decision at that time to move the date back to Aug. 7, especially as the board also voted against increasing the bag limit for inriver users. Setnetters objected, saying it would unfairly truncate their opportunity to harvest sockeye salmon. Sockeye runs on the Kenai have been increasingly arriving in August—in 2018, for the first time on record, more than half the run arrived after Aug. 1. The fleet also shrinks in August, as more people begin pulling nets out of the water and fewer people are fishing. The rule is evaluated based on the entire fleet, and so the one percent rule makes it a challenge for the whole fleet to keep up with the catch. Gary Hollier, a longtime East Side setnetter, told the board the fleet’s harvest of Kenai-bound coho salmon is relatively minimal. Genetics data provided by the department estimated the East Side setnet harvest of Kenai-bound coho at about 5,400 fish last year, said Pat Shields, the commercial fisheries management coordinator for Upper and Lower Cook Inlet. The total yearly Cook Inlet-wide coho harvest has declined by about 56 percent, or roughly 150,000 fish per year since 1999 compared to historical averages, according to department figures. Comparatively, the Kenai River sport coho harvest has remained roughly flat over that time. Historical data indicate the Kenai coho run is about 150,000 fish. “(The commercial coho harvest) is already minimized,” Hollier said. “There’s no reason to change this. If anything, the minimize date… was Aug. 15. That’s the minimize date.” Shields said the 1 percent rule was not used since being moved back to Aug. 7 in 2017, but other restrictions were placed on the setnet fishery in recent years because of low king and sockeye returns. It was used periodically in years when it took effect July 31, according to Shields. Kevin Delaney, a former ADFG sportfisheries biologist and consultant with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, pointed to another proposal for the board to increase the bag limit of coho to three from the current two. In 2017, the board declined to do so, citing concerns about harvest rates, but still moved back the effective date for the 1 percent rule. Coho are worth more to the sportfishery than the commercial fishery, he said, especially with the decline in king salmon availability across Alaska. “We stand ready to present reams of economic data that would reflect and inform the board and the public on the value of coho salmon for sportfishing in Upper Cook Inlet,” Delaney said. “That value has gone up exponentially because of the low abundance of king salmon we have. We’ve seen a real decline in the abundance of king salmon … what’s that done is it’s pushed a lot of the effort toward sockeye and coho salmon.” What the new rule is likely to cost setnetters, though, is sockeye. ADFG was neutral on the proposal but had concerns about the effect on management for escapement goals, said Alyssa Frothingham, the assistant area management biologist for commercial fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet. “The department has concerns, however, with restrictions that might impair our ability to meet sockeye salmon escapement objectives in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers,” she told the board. Board member Fritz Johnson said that variability in salmon runs could end up unfairly restricting setnetters from harvesting sockeye. “In (Bristol Bay), fish don’t arrive where they’re headed in a steady stream,” he said. “The changes that can take place from a day or a tide can be significant, and under those circumstances, there can be a lot of lost opportunity if we enact this rule too early. I don’t think it’s right that the commercial fishery take a hit on this and lose opportunity.” The board ultimately voted to pass the proposal moving the date to July 31, taking no action on other 1 percent rule proposals based on it. Commercial fishermen had proposed eliminating it entirely, while other proposals sought to expand it to 2 or 3 percent, largely based on concerns for coho salmon harvest opportunities.

Halibut commission cuts 2020 harvest levels for US waters

Amid ongoing stock declines and concerns about commercial bycatch, the International Pacific Halibut Commission opted to cut allocations in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska for 2020. Regulatory area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, will see about a 7.7 percent reduction from the 2019 allocation, while area 3A, which covers the central Gulf of Alaska, will see about a 9.7 percent reduction. The commission, which includes three representatives each from the U.S. and Canada, passed the catch limits for 2020 at its meeting in Anchorage on Feb. 7. Coastwide, the commissioners set the 2020 total constant exploitation yield, or TCEY, rate at 36.6 million pounds, about a 2 million-pound cut from last year’s TCEY of 38.6 million pounds. That cut came from the U.S. part of the agreement, though; Canada’s allocation of 6.83 million pounds stayed level, in part due to more biomass availability in Area 2B, Canada’s part of the coast. Charter halibut rules were also approved based on the harvest levels. In 2C the limits are 1 halibut per day equal to or less than 40 inches or larger than 80 inches. In 3A, the limits are 2 halibut per day with 1 of any size, and 1 equal to or less than 26 inches. Tuesdays will also be closed for charter anglers in 3A. U.S. Commissioner Chris Oliver said he recognized that there maybe some dissatisfaction on the U.S. side because of the cut while Canada’s allocation stayed level, but that the agreement helped serve the process. “In this particular case, (the biomass) went up in the favor of Canada,” he said. “While optically, I agree with many stakeholders’ concerns, I think it’s in the best interest of this process and it’s a fair reflection of the agreement we made.” Oliver said he did have some concerns about the level of fishing intensity being set at 42 percent of the spawning potential ratio, though noted that it is within the range recommended as safe by the scientific advisors to the commission. Canadian Commissioner Peter DeGreef said he objected to the level of fishing intensity as well, saying that without a cut in allocations soon, the commission could be forced to take more drastic action to preserve the stock. He referenced advice from his father to preserve the stock in his comments. “This is no way to manage a resource,” he said. “I cannot agree to an F42 (fishing intensity) because I do not believe I would be doing the one thing my father asked me to do.” The commission also agreed to a 50 percent account of bycatch of halibut smaller than 26 inches, an issue that had caused concern among commercial fishermen and on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for fishery stability. U.S. Commissioner Robert Alverson noted that commission staff will be presenting more information to the commissioners in the future to help them continue the discussion on including U26 in bycatch accounting. He also said the concerns of the charter fleet played a role in the catch limits set in areas 3A and 2C. If the limit had dropped much further in 3A, for example, it would have meant the charter fleet was closed for halibut fishing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, Alverson said. “That was a compelling issue there,” he said. “Should the resource continue to deteriorate, I’m not sure we can hold that line in 2021.” Though commissioners DeGreef and Richard Yamada said they disagreed with major aspects of the agreement, commissioners Oliver, Neil Davis and Paul Ryall said they would support it. Davis noted that the agreement had some major steps forward for Canada, including monitoring for bycatch. However, unless the stock begins to rebound, he said he expected more difficult discussion in the future. “While this year’s discussions were difficult, I think the next few years look like they will be even more difficult,” he said. “I think it’s important for all of us to bear that in mind, and that it … potentially means that there will be difficult discussions about the scope of fishing opportunities that lie ahead.” The catch limits for 2020 as passed by the IPHC are as follows: Area 2A (California, Oregon, and Washington): 1.65 million pounds Area 2B (Canada): 6.83 million pounds Area 2C (Southeast Alaska): 5.85 million pounds Area 3A (Central Gulf of Alaska): 12.2 million pounds Area 3B (Western Gulf of Alaska): 3.12 million pounds Area 4A (Eastern Aleutians): 1.75 million pounds Area 4B (Western Aleutians): 1.31 million pounds Areas 4CDE (Bering Sea/Closed area): 3.9 million pounds Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Council approves tighter halibut charter rules for 2020

A tough season may be ahead for the halibut charter fleet in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska as managers look to reduce the overall catch of Pacific halibut. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a set of recommendations for regulations on the charter fleets in areas 2C and 3A, covering Southeast and Southcentral respectively, at its meeting last week. Both include tighter restrictions than in previous years and ratchet down as the recreational catch allocation goes down. In Southeast Alaska, the recommended highest-tier catch limit ranges between 772,000 to just more than 1 million pounds and would allow for an upper size limit of longer than 80 inches and a lower limit of less than 40. If the catch limit goes down to between 658,000 and 771,000 pounds, the council’s recommendations keep the same size limits but begin closing Wednesdays, starting at the end of the season and working backward with a maximum of all Wednesdays in the season being closed. Lower than that, the council recommends a closure of a minimum of 14 Wednesdays and an annual limit of four halibut for all charter anglers, then an annual limit of three halibut, with a complete closure of Wednesdays and an annual limit of three halibut if the catch limit is set at less than 615,000 pounds. In Southcentral, the council took a similar tiered approach. The allocation levels are larger in general in Southcentral, but so is participation. Regardless of the allocation, the recommendations include an annual limit of four halibut per charter angler, closed Wednesdays, one trip per halibut charter vessel per day, and one trip per permit per day. If the allocation is between about 1.7 million and 2 million pounds, the daily bag limit would be set at two halibut, with one fish of any size and the other smaller than 26 inches, with some Tuesdays closed. At an allocation of between 1.588 million and 1.695 million pounds, the bag and size limits would be the same, but all Tuesdays would close and some Thursdays would close until the allocation is achieved. Below that, all Tuesdays would be closed with a daily bag limit of one halibut and a reverse slot limit, with an upper limit of 80 inches and a lower limit beginning at 58 inches. In particular, charter operators in Southcentral came out to comment in opposition to the recommendations. Many told the council that the additional restrictions would further reduce the viability of their fishery. “Alarms are sounding regarding the proposals regarding 3A as they will certain economic damage across our small community,” wrote Whittier City Manager Jim Hunt to the council. “The management of the halibut resource is critical and we in Whittier believe it would be much more effective to address the over/under rule for male fish and more importantly, narrow the aperture and focus on the fact that most commercial bycatch halibut are breeding females.” Many of the commenters asked the council to redirect its efforts toward reducing the bycatch in the commercial trawl fisheries in the North Pacific. The total non-directed discard mortality for area 3A came in at approximately 1.6 million pounds, according to a 2019 fisheries statistics report presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. For the entirety of Area 3, which includes Area 3B in the Western Gulf, that total comes to about 2.1 million pounds. The vast majority of that is in the commercial trawl fishery, with hook-and-line fisheries “a distant second,” according to the report. “IPHC Regulatory Area 3 remains the area where non-directed commercial discard mortality is estimated most poorly,” the report states. “Observer coverage for most fisheries is relatively low.” Many of the concerned charter captains come from Homer, where a major chunk of the economy rests on tourism. As halibut biomass has continued to decline, regulations have continued to tighten, and the institution of a catch-share plan splitting the area allocation between the commercial and recreational fishery has put pressure on the charter sector, reducing the reliability of the recreational fishing opportunity for tourists. The Homer Chamber of Commerce asked the council to take more comprehensive action to control bycatch in the commercial trawl fishery, instituting full observer coverage in the Gulf of Alaska, the same way it is in the Bering Sea fishery. “When the Longline and Charter Fleets experience further restrictions, regulations need to reflect the Trawl Fleet in the Gulf of Alaska being held to the same standardized methods and restrictions,” the organization wrote. “We believe that by instituting 100 percent observer coverage in the Gulf of Alaska, the fishery will reduce bycatch to a more sustainable level for our industry fisherman here.” The council’s recommendations go to the International Pacific Halibut Commission just in time for its meeting, which began Feb. 3 in Anchorage. The commission will set the annual catch limits for halibut in the U.S. and Canada fisheries, with reductions expected across the board due to declining available biomass for harvest. Recent surveys have shown a continuation of a long-term decline, with some potential for increases in future year classes but a short-term decline. One of the council’s main concerns is the inclusion of bycatch of fish smaller than 26 inches in the calculation of the Total Constant Exploitation Yield limit, or TCEY, which the IPHC has voted to do. The new procedure will likely increase allocation to Canada and, in combination with decreased biomass, impact Alaska halibut fisheries, according to a Dec. 31 letter from the council to the IPHC. “The Area 3A adopted TCEY was up 8 percent in 2019 from the prior year, and in 2020 the TCEY could drop by 28 percent from 2019 levels while Area 4CDE could drop 20 percent from 2019 levels if set at the reference TCEY levels,” the letter states. “Interannual changes of this magnitude, which the Council notes are very unusual for long-lived groundfish species, pose significant challenges to commercial and recreational directed users of the halibut resource.” The council asked the IPHC to consider delaying the inclusion of U26 fish bycatch in the TCEY, among other actions, to reduce the year-to-year swings. The IPHC meeting continues through Feb. 7 in Anchorage. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Salmon forecasts out for popular Copper River, Cook Inlet fisheries

Copper River fishermen may be facing a lean year for sockeye but a boom year for kings, while Upper Cook Inlet sockeye are forecast for another weaker run. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released the forecasts for the two regions on Jan. 28, showing a below-average runs for Upper Cook Inlet and Copper River sockeye. Both regions are of high interest: the Copper River because of its high-dollar, early-season sockeye and world-famous king salmon, and Upper Cook Inlet because of its high visibility and accessibility to fishermen of all user groups in Southcentral Alaska. Copper River The Alaska salmon season unofficially begins with the Copper River kings, and this year, there may be something to celebrate for the first time in a while. ADFG biologists are forecasting a return of 60,000 king salmon to the Copper River, about 20 percent more than the recent 10-year average, with an estimated common property harvest of 36,000 fish. The estimated commercial harvest in 2019 was 18,400 king salmon, according to ADFG. King salmon everywhere are valuable to commercial fishermen, but Copper River kings especially so because they are the first of the season; in 2018, the average ex-vessel value for kings in Prince William Sound was $12.91 per pound compared to a statewide average of $5.99 per pound, according to ADFG. By contrast, the wild sockeye forecast for the Copper River is about 1.42 million sockeye, less than the recent 10-year average of 2.1 million sockeye. Combined with expected hatchery returns, the total run forecast comes out to about 1.53 million sockeye, with a common property harvest of 970,000 fish, according to the forecast. Upper Cook Inlet Biologists are forecasting a total run of 4.3 million sockeye across the systems of Upper Cook Inlet, including the Kasilof, Kenai and Susitna rivers. That’s about 900,000 fewer fish than the estimated 2019 return of approximately 5.2 million sockeye to all systems. If the forecast proves true, the commercial harvest would come out to about 1.7 million, about 1 million fish less than the recent 20-year average harvest. The Kenai River is the dominant sockeye system in the drainage and is forecast to see a return of 2.2 million, about 1.4 million fewer than the recent 20-year average, according to the forecast. The Kasilof forecast is also less than the average, with a projected return of about 723,000 fish, while the Susitna is up: about 49 percent above the recent 10-year average, with a projected return of 571,000 sockeye. Fish Creek is also up from the average, with a projected return of about 121,000 fish. The run in 2019 was larger than in the previous handful of years, but still came in less than the forecast of about 6 million fish. This is in part because of the underperformance of either two two-ocean age classes or one three-ocean age class, either due to over-forecasting or poor marine survival, according to the forecast. Kenai and Deshka kings Things look better for the late run of Kenai River king salmon in 2020, but the early run on the Kenai and the run on the Deshka look less than rosy again. ADFG released the 2020 outlooks for the king salmon runs on the two rivers on Jan. 27, in advance of the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting beginning Feb. 7. The Deshka River is expected to see a return of 10,570 kings; the Kenai River’s early run is estimated at 4,794 kings, less than the average but still within the escapement goal, while the Kenai late run is projected at 22,707, about 60 percent better than the estimated total 2019 run. The Deshka forecast is within the biological escapement goal of 9,000 to 18,000 fish but is less than the sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 28,000 fish, according to ADFG. The forecast is about 35 percent less than the recent 10-year average but greater than the estimated 2019 return of 8,466 kings. The Deshka has also seen a recent increase in jack kings — small, younger males — at the weir, which could affect production, according to a memo from Northern Cook Inlet Area Research Biologist Nick DeCovich with the Division of Sport Fish. The early run of king salmon in the Kenai River — which is demarcated from the late run at the end of June each year — has been declining for about the last decade. The estimated forecast is within the optimum escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 large king salmon but is less than both the five- and 10-year recent averages, according to ADFG. The late run estimate of 22,707 large fish, on the other hand, will be about on par with the recent five-year average but about half the 10-year average, according to ADFG. The late run estimate would be within its sustainable escapement goal range, if the forecast proves true next summer. The king salmon runs in Upper Cook Inlet are some of the highest-interest stocks in the region, but have declined in abundance so much in recent years that sport anglers have diverted effort to other stocks, with the anticipation that fishing will be restricted. Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, particularly setnetters, have had to work around paired restrictions on their time and area based on projected runs to the Kenai River, intended to protect king salmon migrating close to shore. With the upcoming meeting and several proposals on the docket that would alter king salmon management in Upper Cook Inlet, ADFG managers said they would not announce preseason management measures until after the meeting, according to a press release issued Jan. 27. “ADF&G understands that anglers, guides, and local businesses are better served by preseason and timely management decisions,” said Sport Fish Cook Inlet Coordinator Matt Miller. “However, it is prudent to hold off making any preseason management decisions prior to the Board of Fisheries meeting. The board will be considering actions that could impact these fisheries.” The board meeting is scheduled to begin Feb. 7 in Anchorage. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Seafood industry facing challenges beyond harvest cuts

Amid ongoing declines of salmon returns, restrictions on harvest and collapsing groundfish stocks, Alaska seafood industry experts are concerned about something else too: the workforce. The Alaska seafood workforce, both on boats and on shore, is aging, and fewer young people are going into careers in the industry. While the graying of the fishing fleet is in part because of the high cost of entry for permits, boats, and equipment, there is also a looming shortage in processing plant workers. Jay Stinson, president of the Alaska Research Consortium, a research organization supporting fisheries and marine science in the North Pacific, told the House Fisheries Committee on Jan. 23 that about 75 percent of the state’s manufacturing workforce is in the seafood industry. However, those workplaces are changing from what they were a few decades ago, when unskilled labor dominated. “(Processors are) moving from the old slime line, which was unskilled labor, to a technical skill set requiring computer sciences, robotic operators and programmers, maintenance people, things like that,” he said. “Those skill sets are in really big demand, but there’s no place in the state to get that training.” While the University of Alaska has some courses in fisheries technology and skill sets that would be useful to processors, there is no training program that specifically focuses on those skills as related to the seafood industry. A survey of 40 plant managers from 20 different companies the Alaska Research Consortium conducted showed significant interest in more training opportunities for seafood-related careers, said Paula Cullenberg, the executive director of the Alaska Research Consortium. The survey respondents noted the need for skills like math and English proficiency, but also supervisory skills, conflict management and developing future leaders. While many employees get some level of training, some also get training in technical operations like boiler operation, wastewater management, quality control and commercial driving, Cullenberg said. Companies often bear the cost of training individuals currently, she said. “Training provides the opportunity for folks to make a career out of that industry,” she said. In addition to improving existing training opportunities and connecting seafood processing plants with their local high schools as potential internship or employment opportunities—Cullenberg told the House Fisheries Committee that fewer than half of the plants surveyed have a relationship with their local high schools, but that there is a lot of interest; the Alaska Research Consortium is proposing a Seafood Workforce Training Partnership. The partnership would exist to promote training opportunities for Alaska residents and expose high school students to careers in the industry, based out of the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center. To get it started, the consortium is looking to Technical Vocational Education Program funds. The program, housed in the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, provides noncompetitive education grants for workforce reeducation, paid for by a tax on the wages employees are required to contribute to unemployment insurance. TVEP was created initially in 2000 and provides grants to organizations like Ilisagvik College and the Alaska Technical Center. According to information the Alaska Research Consortium provided the House Fisheries Committee, the average annual contribution from employees in seafood processing and packaging to the TVEP program is about $600,000 annually. “We think TVEP resources are a good way to get it started and moving forward,” Cullenberg said. Kodiak in crosshairs Kodiak as a community is deeply connected to the seafood industry; in addition to being the third-largest port for commercial fishing landings in the United States by volume, the archipelago is home to the popular Kodiak Crab Festival and ComFish Alaska each year. Beyond the direct jobs in the fishing industry, the spending and wages in that industry create other jobs in the economy. But in recent years, the fishing fleet there has seen a number of its major fisheries reduced or closed entirely. Halibut fishermen have watched catch limits decline over the past decade along with the biomass; herring fisheries have dropped; this year brought a complete closure to the 2020 Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska; and crab fisheries have been closed or significantly scaled back over time. Salmon has been a reliable standby, with millions of the fish returning to the rivers and streams of Kodiak each summer, but the season is short and the runs can be unpredictable. The Board of Fisheries also recently changed two management plans that shift sockeye salmon fishing opportunities away from Kodiak in Cape Igvak and in the Katmai and Alinchak areas along the mainland Alaska Peninsula, cutting into the sockeye salmon fishery from the island. “What’s happening in Kodiak … is that you have a cascading chain of events that is creating increased pressure or diminishing opportunity for resident workers,” said Duncan Fields, the chairman of the Kodiak Salmon Workgroup and a member of the Alaska Research Consortium board. “We have seen the downturn of a number of fisheries. So it’s cumulative impact.” As those fisheries decline, so may jobs for processing plant workers. Over time, with reductions in hours and opportunities, families with long histories in processing jobs have not been able to make it anymore, Fields said; Kodiak has been gradually losing population over the course of the last decade. Fields said the estimated economic loss with the two sockeye fishery changes would be between $2 million and $3 million on the island. However, it doesn’t mean there’s no demand for plant workers, and especially for skilled workers, he said. The newer plants in particular have fewer manual jobs and more computerization, particularly on heavy equipment like canning machines. While some training can be done on the job, processing companies are interested in having skilled people who are willing to stay over time, he said. “It’s difficult to recruit and train and currently, the processing companies themselves are bearing most of the cost of training men and women to be part of the seafood industry,” he said. “I believe it’s a wonderful industry; I believe it’s a great career path for people.” The ARC program would be based in Kodiak and would be focused primarily on training residents, but nonresidents would be able to apply, Fields said. House Fisheries Chairman Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said at the opening of the meeting that she would be interested in securing annual funding for the program proposed by the consortium. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board shifts salmon from Kodiak to Chignik, Cook Inlet

Commercial fishermen in Kodiak will lose some of their time and area for salmon fishing in two management areas as part of an effort to put more salmon in Chignik and northern Cook Inlet. The Board of Fisheries passed several proposals at its meeting Jan. 15 that will cut back on available salmon fishing time in the Cape Igvak area and along sections of the Alaska Peninsula. Kodiak fishermen lost both significant time and area, which commenters said would be a major economic hit for commercial salmon fishermen there. The board passed two proposals changing salmon management plans in the area after multiple days of comment and deliberation last week in Kodiak, including more than a hundred people who came to testify about the proposed restrictions. The proposals are at the crux of a variety of interests: concern about the long-term viability of the Chignik salmon fishery and the interception of Cook Inlet-bound sockeye by the Kodiak fishing fleet. In particular, the presence of Cook Inlet salmon stocks in Kodiak management area fisheries has caused consternation in the Cook Inlet fleet, in part because of the already-high demand on Cook Inlet fisheries in all sectors. Proposal 60, which the board modified before passing, reduces the allocation of salmon to Kodiak in the Cape Igvak section in western Kodiak. The original proposal cut it from 15 percent to five percent of the total Chignik Area sockeye salmon catch; the board modified it to set the allocation as close to 7.5 percent as possible. It also reduces the length of the season by about 20 days and doubles the allocation for Chignik fishermen before the area opens for Kodiak fishermen; previously, Chignik fishermen had to catch 300,000 sockeye before Kodiak fishermen could fish at Cape Igvak. That limit is now set at 600,000. Board member Marit Carlson-Van Dort, who proposed the modified language for the board, said she heard agreement among stakeholders about concern for Chignik stocks, and in addition to aligning other existing regulations, this proposal could help address that. “The Chignik early run sockeye salmon are struggling,” she said. “I sat here and heard that from virtually all the stakeholder groups over the last few days. In my mind, that point is indisputable.” The other, proposal 64, originally sought to change the management plans for Cape Igvak, North Shelikof Strait and the Mainland District. The purpose, according to proposal author Dan Anderson, was to constrain Kodiak harvest of non-Kodiak stocks as much as possible. The board members changed the proposal with new language, increasing the sockeye salmon catch caps in the Mainland District and Shelikof Strait District to 20,000 sockeye salmon and change the fishing time allowance. It also extends the North Shelikof Strait Management Plan to Alinchak Bay and Katmai, requiring those two areas to be based on local stocks. Board member Israel Payton backed the proposal, saying it could help move some of the Cook Inlet-bound salmon further north, particularly toward the Susitna River, which has been struggling to meet returns and sustain a fishery. Board member John Jensen opposed both proposals, raising concerns about the economic impact on Kodiak and noting that Cook Inlet commercial fisheries would have to be addressed if the sockeye passing through Kodiak now will make it all the way north to the Susitna River. “These fish we do pass will definitely go into another fishery,” he said.”They’ll be going into the Upper Cook Inlet fishery.” Fishermen and biologists have long suspected that salmon harvested around Kodiak are not all headed for Kodiak streams. However, the extent of it became clear after an Alaska Department of Fish and Game genetic composition study published in 2017 showed the percentages of various stock catches in some Kodiak fisheries from 2014-16; Cook Inlet-bound stocks composed a significant percentage as great as 37 percent in one season. At the meeting in Kodiak, ADFG Commercial Fisheries Division salmon fisheries scientist Bill Templin told the board that scientists have been studying the origins of salmon in Kodiak for a long time, but data has varied over time. The most recent genetic data about the stock composition is limited in scope — it only covers a small number of the fishery areas and only over 2014-16 and extrapolating it to other years comes with that caveat — Templin said. The various studies on the topic have varied in scope, area and purpose, he said. “We recognize that the board is charged with making decisions using the best available information,” he said. “The board routinely must use limited or uncertain data and information from studies that were not designed to answer the question being asked by the concerned public.” There were a variety of other proposals, some more severe, proposed for the meeting to restrict Kodiak sockeye salmon harvest that the board did not pass. Stakeholders from Kodiak raised concerns about the stability of their fishery, particularly economically, if the changes proposed went through. One of the main contentions stakeholders from Kodiak raised was that the genetic data should not be widely applied, and nor should the origin of stocks dictate where they are harvested. “They tell you what everybody knew for about a hundred years, maybe 50 years: that not all the fish we catch are Kodiak fish,” said Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Bill Roberts. “If you (pass all these proposals restricting) the salmon fishery in Kodiak, you will greatly cripple the salmon fleet, and you will cripple the economy of this island.” Kodiak Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sarah Phillips told the board that heavy restrictions on the salmon fishery will ricochet through the island’s economy. About 38 percent of the area’s jobs are in fisheries. A heavy blow to fisheries means secondary effects in other jobs, she said. In recent years, the cuts in groundfish fisheries — including this year’s complete closure of the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery — have led to fishermen relying more heavily on salmon. “If the suggested proposals are adopted, a significant portion of our employment will be affected,” she told the board. “The fishery income loss will be compounded and potentially devastate fisheries and non-fisheries businesses.” The economic estimates for impact on Kodiak were based on old versions of the proposals, before the board modified them, and so may no longer accurately reflect changes in the fisheries. The Kodiak Island Borough estimated the losses from several of the proposals in the Cape Igvak area and the North Shelikof Strait in the millions, Kodiak Island Borough Assembly member Dan Arndt told the board. The board tabled one more proposal, Proposal 37, which would create paired restrictions for king salmon harvest between Cook Inlet and Kodiak, until the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, partly to get more information about funding for another study related to it. That meeting is set to begin Feb. 7 in Anchorage. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Rockfish closure another blow to Southeast fleet

Southeast Alaska fishermen won’t get to target yelloweye rockfish in 2020, and that’s another notch in tightening belt for the area fleet. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the full-year closure on Dec. 31, spanning both the commercial and recreational sectors. Targeted fishing for all nonpelagic rockfish, which includes species like yelloweye, quillback, tiger and china rockfish, will be closed across the region due to declining populations of the fish. Nonpelagic rockfish, particularly yelloweye, are popular among sport anglers and are regularly caught by the longline commercial fishing fleet in the region. The personal use fisheries for yelloweye in Sitka and Ketchikan will also be closed for 2020, according to the announcement. Biologists come up with an estimate for biomass of demersal shelf rockfish — another term for the nonpelagic rockfish species — by surveying yelloweye rockfish, the most populous and frequently harvested species, in given areas each year. They also take biological samples at ports when fish are landed. The population of yelloweye has been declining since the mid-1990s, despite conservative management measures. Biomass has declined by about 60 percent since 1994, according to the closure announcement from ADFG. “These concerns warrant further management action to allow for rebuilding of (demersal shelf rockfish) stocks and to ensure sustainable rockfish fisheries in the future. Further restrictions in other fisheries will be considered to reduce DSR bycatch.” The age classes are being truncated as well, said Andrew Olson, the groundfish and shellfish coordinator for Southeast Alaska with Fish and Game. Yelloweye rockfish are an extremely long-lived species; they can live to be about 120 years old, and don’t start spawning until they are 18 to 22 years old. In recent years, surveys have shown fewer older fish and fewer young fish entering the fishery, Olson said. “The older fish, those big females, have the most eggs,” he said. “At the same time, we’re not seeing as many fish coming into the fishery, so we’re narrowing our age structure.” The decline has been going on for more than two decades and restrictions have ramped up. Managers started implementing restrictions to the fishery in 2006, with the Board of Fisheries setting up an allocation system to control harvest and tighter limits being placed on sportfisheries. In the last few years, commercial fishery closures for demersal shelf rockfish have gone into place as well in various areas, Olson said. However, biomass has continued to decline, with the exact reasons not entirely clear. The closures are the next step as biologists, managers and stakeholders work on plans to rebuild the stocks, Olson said. During the last winter season, commercial fishermen in the northern and southern Southeast areas together took about 38,749 pounds of demersal shelf rockfish. While it’s not necessarily a major fishery compared to salmon and halibut, it’s an important fishery to some communities because it is open-access, Olson said. “Yelloweye rockfish makes up the majority of our (nonpelagic rockfish) harvest in the commercial fishery — (it) comprises about 95 percent, next largest is quillback, and pretty much everything else is miniscule,” he said. “It’s an important fishery in that it’s an open access fishery; it’s typically one of the few fisheries that are open when everything else is closed down.” Because rockfish is such a long-lived species, it will take time to rebuild. West Coast states have had to do the same, with their stocks depleted more severely than Alaska’s; the hope is to start reversing the problem sooner to help conserve the stock for the future, Olson said. The recreational fleet also often targets nonpelagic rockfish in Southeast: typically yelloweye, as they are one of the largest species, but also tiger, canary, and china rockfish, among other species. In 2018, anglers in Southeast harvested 163,822 fish, up from 149,927 in 2017 but down from a high of 193,098 in 2014, according to ADFG’s sport fishing survey. Fishermen have gradually seen more restrictions go into place on nonpelagic rockfish, particularly yelloweye, said Bob Chadwick, the sportfish coordinator for Southeast Alaska. Most recently, the annual limit for nonresident anglers in Alaska is a single yelloweye rockfish. Much of the effort for yelloweye rockfish comes from nonresident anglers, but residents do target them, he said. Nonpelagic rockfish will often occupy similar habitat to halibut, but avoiding fishing near rocky structures can help reduce the number of rockfish hooked by accident when fishing for them is closed, Chadwick said. “Fish in sandy areas, try to stay off rock structures,” he said. “That’s the main thing; if you’re fishing for halibut, some anglers find that fishing up in the water column, keeping it up off the bottom will reduce your harvest of rockfish.” The Southeast guide industry is increasingly losing options, with tighter restrictions on king salmon populations that are struggling to make escapement each year, a high likelihood of reduced halibut catch limits due to declining biomass, and now a complete nonpelagic rockfish closure. Lingcod, another popular species for sportfishing, is also fully allocated ad closely and is sustainable at present, Chadwick said. In a newsletter, the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization said it would ask ADFG to modify the emergency order closing the fishery to yelloweye only, allowing sportfishermen to target other nonpelagic rock species, given that it is the yelloweye abundance that has dropped so significantly. The organization will also petition the state to separate slope rockfish from the current “nonpelagic” definition in statute, according to the newsletter. While only Southeast has the complete closure, a new regulation went into place for sportfishing for rockfish statewide this year: deepwater release mechanisms. As of Jan. 1, every vessel headed out to sportfish — regardless of whether the anglers are targeting rockfish or not — must have a deepwater release mechanism on board. The devices allow rockfish brought up to the surface to be lowered back down to their native depths and released there, which has been shown to significantly improve survival rates; rockfish suffer from decompression when reeled to the surface, but if quickly lowered to depth and released, they show much better survival rates. Chadwick said the Southeast guide industry has been using the deepwater release mechanisms for years, so it’s nothing new for them, but the public is becoming more comfortable with them. A creel survey in Southeast Outside waters showed that about 80 percent of nonguided anglers polled had used a deepwater release mechanism at least once, he said. “We’re concentrating now on what (we missed) with those people who aren’t using them,” he said. “Really, an upside-down weight on a hook would work.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Marketing efforts paying off for Bristol Bay sockeye

In Alaska, Bristol Bay is nearly synonymous with sockeye salmon. But in the Lower 48, marketers are still trying to raise awareness for the brand and increase sales for the famously plentiful fish. So far, it seems like it’s been working. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a fleet-funded cooperative focusing on promoting and improving Bristol Bay seafood products, launched a new marketing program in 2016 to boost sales and awareness in the domestic market. After three years, the numbers seem to bear out that it is working: the organization reported a 34 percent sales lift for the 20 retailers across the U.S. in 2019. That sales lift refers to volume sold, said Executive Director Andy Wink. Participating retailers include Costco, Earth Fare, H-E-B, Harris Teeter, Market Basket, New Seasons Market, QFC, Raleys, Rouses, Rosauers and Wegmans; all told, across the 20 retailers, the program and product includes 1,600 stores nationally. BBRSDA has long been focused on improving quality of product, but after helping the fleet modernize to refrigerating product and emphasizing fillets instead of canning, the organization identified a marketing program as the next step, Wink said. Between 2008 and 2018, the percentage of filleted fish in the Bristol Bay fleet increased from 18 percent to 86 percent, in part subsidized by BBRSDA’s distribution of ice for the fleet and the promotion of refrigerated sea water cooling systems. “The time was right to create a marketing platform that could tell the amazing Bristol Bay story and communicate the special aspects of sockeye salmon from the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery to consumers in a really efficient way for industry,” Wink said in an email. “In a world with more and more farmed salmon being produced every year, this is a really special wild fish which shouldn’t be sitting on shelves as a generic product. We needed to explain the story and value to consumers.” The marketing program includes a variety of approaches, including negotiated discounts with retailers, in-store demonstrations, point-of-sale assets, digital marketing support, media support and some visits from Bristol Bay fishermen to talk with customers and staff, Wink said. “Consumers get more information, access to resources (recipes, prep tips, etc.) and discounted sale prices,” he said. “Retail partners sell more product and illustrate a commitment to offering premium, sustainable wild seafood. And the industry gets to sell product into a marketplace with a growing customer base, which has come at a perfect time coinciding with large sockeye runs in the Bay.” Bristol Bay fishermen have brought in near-record harvests of sockeye over the past two summers, with just short of 43 million landed in 2019, with a preliminary ex-vessel value of about $303.9 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That large supply, in combination with marketing efforts, may be supporting increased consumer awareness of sockeye salmon specifically, said Caleb Wardell, the wild salmon category manager for Oregon-based retailer Pacific Seafood. “From my perspective, the demand for sockeye salmon is driven by a consistent supply in the last few years, coupled with the variety (of) forms in which it’s available: refreshed in the service counter, tray-packed in self-serve areas, and portions in the freezer,” he said. Salmon consumption is generally ticking up across the U.S. over the past several years. In 2017, Americans consumed about 16 pounds of fish and shellfish per capita, up from the previous year, with the majority of that consumption being shrimp and salmon. On average, Americans ate about 2.41 pounds of salmon per person that year, slightly up from the previous year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2017 Fisheries of the United States report. Though canned salmon consumption was up, fresh and frozen finfish still composed the greatest portion of the seafood Americans consumed, at 6.2 pounds. BBRSDA has commitments from retailers for 2020 already, according to a press release from the organization. So far, the Bristol Bay program has focused on promoting frozen sockeye, but in future expansions, it may expand to include more smoked sockeye, Wink said. It is also currently focused on domestic sales but will look to international sales, food service and other product forms in future years. BBRSDA will have a presence at Global Seafood Expo in Brussels this year and is working to coordinate with restaurants and other food service outlets in the future, Wink said. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute generally markets all Alaska-produced seafood, but in some regions, smaller organizations have been adding additional marketing efforts. BBRSDA markets for Bristol Bay; the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association focuses on seafood produced in Prince William Sound; the Norton Sound Economic Development Association focuses on products like red king crab harvested in Nome. Wink said the BBRSDA supports ASMI’s efforts to market all sockeye but that its program provides an opportunity to tell a more specific story. Wardell said the stories told by partners like ASMI and BBRSDA, particularly with marketing materials and photographs of Alaska, have been successful for retailers. “These consistent efforts excite consumers, leading to increased purchase of Alaska seafood, in this case, Bristol Bay Sockeye,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hotly contested Cook Inlet board meeting looms

In less than a month, fisheries stakeholders from all over the Cook Inlet basin will get together to hash out how salmon should be split up in some of the most populated, heavily-fished streams and marine waters of the state. The Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting is the longest meeting in the Board of Fisheries’ regular cycle, lasting about two full weeks and addressing issues ranging from hook size in certain streams to management plan shifts for entire fisheries. They’re also notoriously contentious, with commercial and sport fisheries interests typically butting heads over how salmon are allocated and fishing time is provided. The Board of Fisheries will meet on Upper Cook Inlet proposals in Anchorage from Feb. 7-19 at the Egan Center. On-time public comments can be submitted through Jan. 23. The board will consider 171 different proposals related to commercial, personal use, sport and subsistence fisheries across the basin. Of those, 68 are directly related to sport or personal-use fisheries; 55 are directly related to commercial fishery management; a variety of others affect both, including changes to management plans or commercial fishery time and area regulations. Sportfisheries The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, is one of the most frequent visitors to board meetings. The organization, which advocates for salmon-related conservation projects on the western Kenai Peninsula and for policies affecting sportfisheries in Southcentral, submitted a number of proposals for the board, ranging from proposing increased sockeye salmon escapement goal numbers to a priority being established for fisheries that provide access for Alaskans to harvest salmon for personal and family consumption. After longtime executive director Ricky Gease stepped down to take over leadership at the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Ben Mohr took over the Soldotna-based organization last March. The group’s proposals circulate around four main themes, he said: increasing access to personal-use fisheries in the Mat-Su Valley, strengthening the corridors to pass more fish north through Cook Inlet, increasing salmon passage into the freshwater systems, and strengthening the work of conservation across all user groups. Some of the group’s proposals overlap in purpose, Mohr said, as they aim at conservation and increasing access for anglers. One of the group’s proposals, No. 78, would set up a prioritization framework for the board to consider when making decisions, putting access to “the importance of each fishery to providing residents the opportunity to harvest fish for personal and family consumption” at the top. That lines up with the organization’s thematic goals, but isn’t the only one related to it, he said. “If you’ve got people that are putting in multiple proposals to the Board of Fish, they’re usually tied together,” he said. The personal-use priority proposal is a renewed version of a proposal the group supported during the Board of Fisheries’ statewide meeting this past March. The board shot the prioritization system down then, citing a lack of support from users. Mohr pointed out that the language of Proposal 78 does not specifically reference personal-use net fisheries, as Alaskans often use rod-and-reel fisheries to fill their freezers, too. That connects to another of the group’s proposals, No. 88, which would increase sockeye salmon in-river goal ranges, with varying levels based on the run strength. In the past, as more fish have returned to the river, the limiting factor has not been level of participation, Mohr said, it’s been access and bag limits. He pointed to the Russian River sportfishery, which boomed this summer and was limited by access along the Sterling Highway and parking. Several other proposals related to the sockeye salmon management plan make similar assertions, expressing frustration that commercial fishermen are allocated the majority of sockeye in Cook Inlet. Proposals 89, 90 and 96 ask for higher in-river sockeye salmon goal ranges and fewer commercial fishing hours available, and Proposal 94 asks for reduced commercial fishing hours in the Upper Subdistrict setnet fishery. Commercial fisheries Multiple sportfish-related proposals related to king salmon seek to pair closures in the Kenai River with closures in the commercial fisheries. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the board passed a set of regulations that restricted commercial fisheries based on whether the in-river fisheries were allowed to retain, used bait or not fish for king salmon at all. In 2017, the board trimmed back some of those restrictions on hours of additional fishing allowed after the setnet fleet complained that they were too restrictive; multiple proposals now seek to strengthen those paired restrictions again. Multiple others seek to scale them back, asserting that they are unfair burdens on the commercial fleet and strangle their ability to operate under their permits. Like many other Upper Cook Inlet meetings, the proposals for the upcoming one are back-and-forth. For nearly every change proposed to increase restrictions on commercial fisheries, there is a competing proposal from commercial fisheries to loosen existing restrictions, tighten restrictions on sportfisheries or strike a compromise between them. A number of proposals submitted by setnet fishermen would modify the paired restrictions or allow setnet fishing in some areas while others are restricted during king salmon restrictions on the Kenai River. The KRSA proposal would establish an Optimum Escapement Goal, or OEG, separate from the existing goals, for late-run kings and reduce the number of hours available to setnets when king salmon fisheries are less than fully prosecuted, with tiers depending on the level of restriction. Mohr said the goal is to spread the burden of conservation of king salmon, which have been struggling on the Kenai River for more than a decade, across all user groups. A separate proposal, No. 195, would change the effective date of a rule for commercial fishermen known as the “1 percent rule” from Aug. 7 to July 31 and increase the percentage to 2 percent. Essentially, if the proposal passes, after July 31, the commercial fishery in the Upper Subdistrict would close if any single period’s catch was less than 2 percent of the season’s total catch was taken for two consecutive periods. The goal is to limit take of coho salmon bound for the Kenai River, according to the proposal document. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, a trade association representing drift gillnet fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, submitted Proposal 187 to eliminate the 1 percent rule on the drift fleet entirely. UCIDA President David Martin said the proposal is based on the fleet’s longtime belief that the 1 percent rule is unscientific and unfairly closes the fleet early, while there are still pink, chum and silver salmon available to be harvested in the inlet. It’s difficult for the fleet to deal with, even if there are plenty of salmon coming in, in part because participation drops off in August, he said. “It has no place in the management of the fisheries for harvesting the surplus and abundance,” he said. “I could be the only “one out there fishing and I could load my boat up, but if it’s not 1 percent, that’d be it. Similarly, UCIDA submitted a Proposal 102 to decrease the late-run sockeye salmon escapement goals on the Kenai River. The group has long asserted that the escapement goals are too high and set to allocate more fish to the sportfishery, resulting in poorer returns due to too many fish being allowed to return to the Kenai River system. Proposal 102 would require the department to manage to the lower end of the escapement goal — which would be set at 700,000 fish — in years immediately following years when the estimated return exceeds 1.03 million spawners in the Kenai River. A number of the proposals for the commercial drift gillnet fishery, such as proposals 123 and 126, seek to increase restrictions on fishing area to promote passage of salmon to the Susitna River and other northern Cook Inlet systems. Contrasting them, UCIDA submitted two proposals, Nos. 134 and 135, to add additional fishing periods for the drifters in Area 1, near the center of the Inlet, during the season. Martin said the managers have been meeting escapement goals for sockeye in the Susitna system, and that the main stock in trouble in the Valley — king salmon — isn’t under pressure by the drift fleet. Mohr said KRSA was interested in improving access to fisheries there, as businesses have shuttered and anglers have seen season after season of closures in recent years due to a lack of salmon passage into the valley streams. “I think we’ve made some good progress on passing more fish north,” he said. “(Mat-Su residents) are longing for more fish up there.” Martin said he hoped the board members would consider scientific research when making allocative decisions at the upcoming meeting. “I’m hoping they use the most reliable scientific data that’s available and make decisions based on abundance so we can harvest the surplus and make it a viable fishery for everybody,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

2020 Forecast: Bristol Bay still looks bright, but fishermen face cuts in cod, crab and halibut

Judging by the forecasts, 2020 could be an eventful year in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. Even though not all the forecasts and catch limits are rosy, there are some bright spots, such as an increased eastern Bering Sea snow crab total allowable catch and another promising forecast for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. However, fishermen this winter are looking at tighter limits in some groundfish fisheries, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska. Bristol Bay Continuing its trend of the last few years, Bristol Bay’s salmon fishermen are looking at another bright forecast for 2020. Biologists are projecting a total inshore run of 46.6 million sockeye to return bay-wide, with a projected harvest of 36.91 million sockeye between the Bristol Bay and South Peninsula fisheries. If the point forecast pans out, it will be 6 percent more than the recent 10-year average. It would about 10 million fish less than the 2019 inshore run of 56.5 million sockeye, which produced a harvest of 43 million sockeye. However, the forecast in 2019 was for 38.7 million sockeye; the actual run blew away the preseason forecast by mid-July. All systems are projected to meet their escapement goals, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preseason forecast. The Naknek-Kvichak District is forecasted to see a return of 19.97 million fish; the Egegik District, 10.75 million; the Ugashik District, 4.67 million; the Nushagak District, 12.63 million; and the Togiak District, 930,000 fish, according to Fish and Game. Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries are a different story. Harvest limits were cut again this past year, this time by 12 percent, with recruitment looking poor and continued declines in the number of crabs available for harvest. The crab is a high-value one for the fleet, but biologists have pointed to environmental factors as a contributor to the decline. Southeast Commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska are looking at a weak pink salmon forecast for 2020, with an estimated 12 million fish forecasted to be available for harvest. That’s close to the bottom of the “weak” range of ADFG percentile categories, which ranges from 11 million to 19 million fish and only about a third of the recent 10-year average of 35 million fish harvested. It’s not entirely unexpected, with low numbers of juveniles detected in 2019. Biologists noted that pink salmon escapements in 2018, when fish would be laying eggs that would migrate out in 2019 and return in 2020, were very poor. Chum returns, which are largely of hatchery origin, look varied as well. While the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association is forecasting a total return of more than 3.9 million between the early and late runs, a similar number to what returned in 2019, Southern Southeast Aquaculture Association’s is a little more than 2 million, less than half the 4.5 million forecasted to return in 2019. Douglas Island Pink and Chum is predicting 1.98 million chum salmon to return, not even enough to meet DIPAC’s cost recovery requirements. After broodstock requirements, 1.7 million would be available for harvest, according to DIPAC’s forecast. “If 100 percent of the 2020 midpoint forecast is achieved there would still be a shortfall on cost recovery revenue,” the DIPAC forecast states. King salmon fishing opportunities have been increasingly restricted as well, with fewer kings returning and more needed to go upstream to meet the requirements of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada. The management strategy for Southeast kings is usually announced in the spring. The unknowns: Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet The 2020 salmon forecasts for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet have yet to be published. Prince William Sound saw a harvest of about 2.5 million sockeye, 49.3 million pink salmon and 5.3 million chum salmon in 2019, according to an ADFG season summary. The pink salmon harvest was smaller than the recent five odd-year average and about a quarter less than the forecasted harvest. The Copper River district in particular did well for sockeye, harvesting 1.27 million sockeye, about 28 percent more than the recent 10-year average and with fish clocking in at an average of 5.5 pounds, the largest in the last five years. Some of the reduced harvest may be due to environmental conditions this summer; Prince William Sound, like the rest of Alaska, saw record-high temperatures and record-low rainfall throughout much of July and August. As a result, pink salmon held in the marine waters and could not enter streams with flow too low to swim, and “significant prespawn mortality events were documented throughout PWS,” according to ADFG. Cook Inlet’s forecast will likely come into discussion during the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, scheduled for Feb. 7-19, 2020, in Anchorage. Last year, the sockeye forecast fell slightly short of the projection, but commercial fishermen were restricted from fishing because of concerns about Kenai River king salmon passage, which was too poor to achieve escapement. As a consequence, commercial fishermen lost fishing time, and the Kenai River sockeye salmon goal was exceeded in 2019. Groundfish The North Pacific Fishery Management Council set harvest levels known as total allowable catch, or TAC, for various groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands at its meeting in December, largely going with the recommendations of the Scientific and Statistical Committee. For the Gulf of Alaska, the pollock TAC is down by about 26,000 metric tons from 2019; sablefish are up by about 3,000 metric tons; and shallow-water flatfish are about level, up by about 1,500 metric tons. The major hit in the Gulf of Alaska is for Pacific cod. Due to declining biomass and low recruitments, the federal-waters fishery will close for 2020 in the Gulf. In the state waters in Cook Inlet, the guideline harvest level is set at 454,513 pounds, with 85 percent allocated to pot gear, according to ADFG. Jig gear, which is allocated 15 percent, will open Jan. 1 in Cook Inlet; pot gear will open Feb. 1. In Kodiak, the 2020 guideline harvest level, or GHL, in state-water cod fisheries is set at 1.52 million pounds, split equally between pot and jig gear. In Chignik, the 2020 GHL is set at 1.06 million pounds, with 90 percent allocated to pot gear; in the South Alaska Peninsula state-water fishery, the 2020 GHL is set at 2.12 million pounds, with 85 percent allocated to pots. In the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, the TACs for Pacific cod are also slightly down, but the limit for pollock is up in the Eastern Bering Sea: from 1.39 million metric tons to 1.42 million metric tons. Pollock TACs are level in the Aleutian Islands and Bogoslof. The sablefish TACs are slightly up in both the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Halibut The 2020 catch limits for Pacific halibut are one of the biggest question marks as 2019 closes. Recent survey data presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission did not offer much hope for fishermen who have been seeing cuts in their fisheries over the past few years as halibut biomass continues to drop. The 2019 annual IPHC meeting brought a reprieve for fishermen, as the commission declined to lower catch limits despite data showing biomass declines in the stock, but this year’s data showed continued declining biomass, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska. The International Pacific Halibut Commission will set final 2020 catch limits at its upcoming meeting in February in Anchorage. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a set of recommendations for ways to reduce the take in the charter fleet to help stay within smaller allocations, but the commercial quotas have yet to be set. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Halibut charter operators brace for more cuts in 2020

The continued decline of Pacific halibut stocks in Alaska’s waters is putting increasing pressure on the charter fleets in Southcentral and Southeast as they try to attract clients. Though the International Pacific Halibut Commission has yet to formally decide on catch limits for the various sectors, survey data discussed at the commission’s interim meeting in November indicates that catch limits are likely to go down to keep the stock within acceptable limits in the future. The Gulf of Alaska is down in particular, with fishermen there facing more restrictions in the future to maintain a healthy stock. Because the council won’t know what the sector allocations are until the first week of February, when the IPHC will meet in Anchorage, the council recommended a progressive set of recommendations for the charter fleet that become more restrictive as the catch limit goes down. In Area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, the measures begin with instituting a reverse slot limit with an upper limit fixed at longer than 80 inches and a lower limit increasing until the allocation is reached, and progress to closing some Wednesdays and decreasing the lower size limit until the allocation is reached. In Area 3A, which covers the central Gulf of Alaska, the situation is different because there isn’t as much information available to analyze what could be done to decrease the charter fleet harvest. Until more information is available, the council recommended maintaining status quo management measures with the addition of closed Tuesdays throughout the year and reducing the size of the second allowed fish on charter boards from 28 inches to 26 inches or less. The recreational charter fleet has its own allocation separate from the commercial fleet. While the Southeast Alaska charter fleet has fluctuated between more and less than its allocation, the Central Gulf of Alaska fleet has consistently exceeded its allocation. Participation has declined in Area 3A over the years but generally increased in Area 2C, said Sarah Webster, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in a presentation to the council. “Effort has been increasing across 2C over the years, but was down in 2019,” she said. “The projection is for a small increase in 2020.” The Charter Halibut Management Committee, a stakeholder-run committee that offers advice to the council on how to manage the charter fleet, considered a variety of recommendations on how to work with the new information about the halibut stock, but the recommendations for the Gulf of Alaska were so low that no one quite knew how to proceed, Webster said. “The takeaway is that nobody expected the numbers to be nearly this low when (the Charter Halibut Management Committee) met back in October,” she said. Halibut numbers have been declining across the Pacific coast for several years, without any single known cause; environmental causes and fishing pressures have been linked to declining recruitment, and though there are some promising age classes showing in the data, they are too young to be included in the fishery yet. Southeast Alaska in particular has felt the pinch of the tightening regulations. The charter fleet there largely targets king salmon, silver salmon and halibut. King salmon have been in decline across the state since about 2007, with especially low numbers in some of the stream systems in Southeast Alaska. In order to meet the requirements of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, fisheries managers have to provide a certain level of escapement, and with fewer fish coming back, that means less and less opportunity for Southeast Alaska’s salmon fishermen. Charter fishermen have been able to divert to fish halibut, but that’s becoming more of a struggle, said Forrest Braden, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, a nonprofit representing sportfishing guides across the region. “It’s not the only front where they’re losing fish to market, but there’s no optimism,” he said. “They’ve only seen reductions.” Southeast Alaska has three major legs to its economy: commercial fishing, government and tourism. In recent years, cruise ship traffic has dramatically increased, with tourists looking for charter boats as excursions when they dock at Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Skagway, the four major cruise ship destinations. Many independent travelers also seek out guided trips as a way to either fill their freezers or for recreational purposes. Guides usually try to book in advance, but with the tightening regulations, they are seeing more cancellations, Braden said. This summer, though statistics say participation was up, guides are anecdotally reporting holes in their schedules, he said. “I think there’s recognition that each of the sectors have tipping points and that the charter fleet is at a tipping point,” he said. “I think the message was that we need to brace ourselves, because obviously, the IPHC forecast … is that the stock is going to continue to decline for the next couple of years.” There’s some hope coming in the form of the Recreational Quota Entity program, though, he said. The RQE program, developed through the North Pacific council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, would allow some commercial quota to be purchased by the charter fleet through an approved single entity to be used in a pool format as allocated quota for the charter fleets in areas 2C and 3A. Full implementation of the program is held up in Congress, though, with a logjam of conflicting interests within a bill and likely delayed by the ongoing impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. During the council meeting Dec. 7, members requested an update at the next meeting in February with current information about the status of the RQE program. Area 3A charter operators may be looking at some more stringent regulations, and those that testified to the council said they were concerned about the sustainability of the charter industry if they cannot adequately market trips. Council member and charter operator Andy Mezirow said the Advisory Committee is considering a variety of options to say within their allocation, but with the unexpectedly low numbers in the halibut survey sent to the IPHC, they needed more information before providing specific recommendations. “We would just really need to be able to weigh all the options to be able to go that far down,” he said. The IPHC’s annual meeting is scheduled to take place from Feb. 3-7, 2020, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled meet the week before, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, 2020, in Seattle. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stock decline leads to historic shutdown for Gulf P-cod

Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen will be keeping their gear dry this winter: The federal fishery has been closed for the 2020 season. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to close the fishery due to concerns about historic low biomass shown in the latest stock assessment. The spawning biomass available in the fishery has declined to less than the threshold where it can sustain a directed fishery and natural predation from Steller sea lions, which depend on Pacific cod as a keystone prey species. The Gulf of Alaska cod stock has been declining for the last four or five years, with biologists drawing the connection to the increased water temperatures in the gulf since 2014. Warmer water conditions have led to lower abundance and fewer young cod in the population, according to the stock assessment. “Female spawning biomass is currently estimated to be at its second lowest point in the 42-year time series considered in this assessment following last year’s record low,” the assessment states. “This following three years of poor recruitment in 2014-16 and increased natural mortality during the 2014-2016 (Gulf of Alaska) marine heat wave.” Cod enter the fishery around three years old. While total biomass has been declining since 2014, it increased slightly in 2019 because of improved recruitment in 2017 and 2018. However, spawning biomass hit a cliff: survey results estimate about 32,957 tons for 2020, less than a third of what it was in 2014 and a historic low. This is below the 20 percent threshold for a fishery, and likely has been since the beginning of 2018, according to the stock assessment. The population may improve in future years as younger fish move into the spawning biomass, but the 2019 age class is expected to be very weak, and biologists don’t know whether the average recruitment rate will apply in the future, according to the assessment. The struggles of the stock have been linked to climate change more than excessive fishing. In 2014, the Gulf of Alaska experienced a major influx of warm water, linked to the El Nino event in the south Pacific. Sea surface temperatures remained above normal in a major section of the Gulf of Alaska for nearly two years afterward, earning the nickname “the blob.” As the blob began to dissipate, Alaska saw another heat wave beginning in September 2018, where sea surface temperatures again spiked from the Gulf to the Bering Sea. Increased sea temperatures can stress fish and have been linked to reduced spawning and recruitment success. Pacific cod, like most fish, are cold blooded. When the water temperature goes up, so do theirs, and their metabolisms along with it. That means they need to eat more, and it becomes easier for them to starve or stay smaller for longer if not enough food is available. “Based on knowledge gained from the 2014-16 heatwave, we consider this to be unfavorable for Pacific cod as the prolonged increased temperatures likely increased their metabolic demands as well as the metabolic demands of their groundfish predators,” the assessment states. “Although as of 1 November 2019 the heatwave appears to have ended 12 October, it is unknown whether these lower temperatures will persist, particularly given the … forecast for warm conditions throughout the North Pacific through the upcoming winter.” The Pacific cod fishery is valuable, both to fishermen and to processors. The fishery in the Gulf of Alaska is primarily shoreside based, unlike the mixed at-sea and shoreside fishery in the Bering Sea, and came in at about $70 million in e-vessel value in 2017, according to a economic status report from the National Marine Fisheries Service. However, stock concerns that year led the council to drop the total allowable catch limit by 80 percent, prompting then-Gov. Bill Walker to request a disaster declaration for the fishery. There isn’t much to say about the fact of the closure except that it’s not good news for the fishermen, said Malcolm Milne, president of the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association. “Other than salmon, Pacific cod is the most important species to many Alaskan small boat fishermen especially in the winter when there are few other fisheries to substitute,” he said. The communities in the western Gulf of Alaska, such as Kodiak and communities in the Aleutians East Borough, depend on fisheries year-round to sustain themselves, both as fishermen and processors. The Aleutians East Borough sent a resolution to the council asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to “make every effort to allow” a western gulf fishery in 2020. The resolution states that fishermen have experienced good fishing for cod in the area and have been working on a voluntary catch share plan to help guarantee a season while not exceeding fishery limits. “Fishermen and communities have suffered under recent low Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod TACs, and the difference between a small cod fishery in 2020 and no fishery at all could mean the difference between the survival of our communities or those communities closing their doors,” the resolution states. In general, the Gulf Pacific cod harvest is much smaller than from the Bering Sea. In 2017, fishermen in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands landed $178 million in ex-vessel value in Pacific cod, more than double the value of the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery in the same year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There are significant markets for Pacific cod in both Europe and the United States, but much of the exported cod goes to China as headed and gutted fish for reprocessing and re-export. About 30 percent of Alaska’s cod production stays in the U.S., according to the stock assessment. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Uneven status of Pacific halibut revealed by annual data

Following the trend of the past several years, overall Pacific halibut biomass seems to be down again. The most recent stock assessment presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission for its interim meeting on Nov. 25-26 shows a coastwide decline in spawning biomass, though that decline isn’t even across all areas. That’s a continuation of a trend seen in stock assessments since 2015. Particularly, surveys have indicated lower numbers of halibut in the central Gulf of Alaska. According to the 2019 stock assessment, biologists estimate the spawning biomass at 194 million pounds. It’s not down by much overall, but the impact to regulatory areas isn’t evenly spread; the central Gulf of Alaska, or Area 3A, has been declining fairly steadily since 2004, while Areas 2 and 4 — from British Columbia southward and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, respectively — have seen increases in the same time period. “What you will see here shortly … is that we have mixed trends coastwide. However, (commercial catches per unit of effort are) relatively flat at the coastwide level, with some relatively brighter spots and some relatively not-so-good spots across the coast,” said Ian Stewart, the lead scientist on the IPHC’s stock assessment. “…We’re looking at a period of relatively low productivity for the Pacific halibut stock over the next three years.” All signs are pointing, as they have before, to lower fishing yields in order to maintain the target level of intensity on the stock. Overall Pacific halibut landings increased in 2019, coastwide, by a little more than 1 million pounds. That increase is in commercial, with reported mortality for subsistence and recreational fishing flat, according to figures Stewart presented to the IPHC. Each year, the IPHC surveys halibut in the management areas to gather data for a stock assessment that will inform the fishing limits set by the IPHC in February, prior to the next season’s opening. This year, the biologists also had new data to work with for the assessment to gather more information about the stock: sex. Female halibut are bigger, and have long been estimated to outweigh male fish in the commercial catch by weight, but with definitive data on sex distribution in commercial catches, biologists were able to establish exactly what proportion of the catch was male or female. The sex ratio information improves the IPHC’s understanding of the stock dynamics significantly, Stewart said. Coastwide, catches are coming in at 82 percent female on average by total number of fish. That’s much higher than they expected, he said. “We’ve always known that the commercial catch would be dominated by female by weight, because female Pacific halibut are much larger than males, but in terms of having 82 percent by number, that is quite a bit higher than we would have expected,” he said. In some areas, it’s higher. Area 4, which covers the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, the catch was 92 percent female. Areas C, D and E, the Central Bering Sea, were 97 percent female. “(The catch is) almost completely females in the Bering Sea fishery,” Stewart said. Pacific halibut are broadcast spawners, meaning the females carry the eggs and lay them into the water column, where they are fertilized by males. Biologists don’t think it takes that many males to sufficiently breed to keep up the stock. However, there isn’t a good tool for fishermen to exclusively target male halibut at present, Stewart said. In addition to having fewer halibut, their size at age has been declining as well. In the early 1990s, the average halibut weighed more than 30 pounds; since 2010-11, the average weight has been in the mid-20s. However, there may be some promise of better numbers down the road. The surveys track halibut age classes as well. To date, the cohort of 1987 — the fish born that year — have been one of the strongest contributors to catches across the coast. In more recent years, the 2005 cohort has dominated catches, and because halibut are multi-year fish, they can be represented for many years as the fish age. While some of the other cohorts have been weaker, scientists have been tracking the 2011 and 2012 age classes, which are now starting to show up in catches. Because they’ve been younger, they haven’t been contributing as much to the overall catches so far, but in the future, they may show up more. The cohorts aren’t as strong as the 2005 or 1999 age classes, but it is good news, Stewart said. One of the factors that biologists think affects recruitment among Pacific halibut is an environmental trend called Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO. PDO describes an environmental phenomenon in the North Pacific similar to the El Nino Southern Oscillation which can last years and describes an oscillation of sea surface temperature and pressure. When temperatures near the coast are higher and cooler in the interior, accompanied by below-average pressure, fishery biologists have noted that Pacific halibut tend to have better recruitment. The opposite is true when the temperatures are lower near the coast and higher near the interior, accompanied by above-average sea level pressures, recruitment tends to be lower. From 2007-13, the PDO value was described as negative, correlated with lower recruitment. Since 2014, the PDO has had a positive value, which may be mean better recruitment, but scientists won’t know for several years yet, Stewart said. The anomalously warm temperatures in the Bering Sea for the last two years may also play a part in Pacific halibut numbers in the future. For the last two years, scientists have noted extremely low sea ice cover in the Bering Sea, accompanied by much warmer sea surface temperatures than normal. This summer, residents and the National Marine Fisheries Service noted unusual sea bird and marine mammal die-offs, potentially correlated with ecosystem changes. There have already been some changes to the Pacific cod distribution, and scientists noted a “modest increase” in the density of Pacific halibut in the northern Bering Sea this summer, Stewart said. It’s hard to definitively say how the warmer temperatures and lack of sea ice will affect Pacific halibut, but scientists have their eyes on the Bering Sea, he said. “We don’t know if (the conditions) are bad yet, but they’re certainly different,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Opposite forecasts for SE pinks, Bristol Bay reds; Cook Inlet busts

Biologists are forecasting another weak pink salmon year for Southeast and another strong sockeye salmon run for Bristol Bay coming in the 2020 season. The forecasts for Southeast Alaska and for Bristol Bay, released in late November, continue the trends of the past few years in both areas. In Southeast, biologists are forecasting about 12 million fish to be harvested, with a range of 7 million to 19 million fish. That’s in the second-lowest forecast percentile, or just more than 20 percent of the fishery’s historic volume. A harvest of 12 million would be about a third of the region’s recent 10-year average harvest, according to the forecast. The forecast number, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay Lab in Juneau in collaboration with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Southeast regional hatcheries, is calculated from surveys of juvenile pink salmon in June and July in northern Southeast Alaska waters. The survey data from 2019 turned up the third-lowest index in the last 23 years, according to the forecast. “The low juvenile abundance index in 2019 was not unexpected. Pink salmon escapements in the parent year (2018) were very poor throughout northern Southeast Alaska inside waters and the escapement goal was not met in that subregion, which may have resulted in below optimal egg deposition,” the forecast states. “Escapement and harvest of pink salmon in the Northern Southeast Inside subregion have been very poor since 2012 and the 2020 forecast indicates this pattern is likely to continue.” Though escapement goals were met in the Southern Southeast and the Northern Southeast Outside regions in 2018, harvests were poor there as well. The reason for the low abundance in the 2019 survey isn’t clear, but it could be due to poor freshwater survival conditions or poorer marine conditions, leading to higher mortality, the forecast states. Drought conditions also lasted from 2018 into spring 2019 in Southeast. The juveniles caught in the survey were all large and healthy-looking, the forecast states, but so were the juveniles from 2014-16, when the returns were also less than average. The summer’s unusually warm and dry conditions may also have an effect, as well as the anomalously high sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska. “The impact of warm sea surface temperatures on the survival of pink salmon that went to sea in 2019 is unknown and adds uncertainty,” the forecast states. Southeast Alaska has had a series of poor pink salmon harvests for the past few years. In 2019, fishermen landed an estimate 21.1 million pink salmon for a total ex-vessel value of $23.7 million, according to a preliminary season summary from Fish and Game. The fish weighed an average of 3.68 pounds. Pink salmon are Southeast’s major volume fishery, but the fish are worth significantly less than other salmon fisheries. Chum, which are significantly larger, came in at an average weight of 7.99 pounds in Southeast. A total of 8.4 million of them landed came to about $37.5 million in ex-vessel value, according to ADFG. The total salmon ex-vessel value of $101 million in 2019 in Southeast was about $32 million less than the total 2018 value, with the shortfall mostly in chums. Bristol Bay Bristol Bay, on the other hand, is predicted to see another better than-average run. The forecast of 48.95 million sockeye is about 6 percent better than the recent 10-year average. If the prediction comes true, it would be yet another big year for Bristol Bay, which has broken harvest and value records for sockeye two years running. The 2018 season brought an estimated 62.5 million sockeye home to the rivers of Bristol Bay; the 2019 season brought more than 50 million. A run of 48.95 million sockeye would allow for a harvest of 36.9 million fish, with 34.56 million in the bay and 2.35 million in the South Peninsula fisheries, according to the forecast. As always, biologists warn caution when reading forecasts, as they may not be accurate, particularly for individual rivers. “Forecasting future salmon returns is inherently difficult and uncertain,” the forecast states. “We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast which have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole.” Another bust year for Cook Inlet Upper Cook Inlet’s salmon fishermen had another disappointing season, with only 2.1 million salmon landed. That’s about 37 percent less than the recent 10-year average. That brought in a total of about $18 million in ex-vessel value, which is about 40 percent less than the recent 10-year average in the fishery, according to ADFG season summary released Nov. 25. It’s better than the 2018 season, when fishermen in the area only landed about 1.3 million salmon total, about 815,000 of which were sockeye. The sockeye showed up erratically late in 2018, throwing management procedures for a loop and frustrating fishermen. This year, the fish were an estimated two days late, but both the Kasilof River and Kenai River sockeye salmon escapement goals were exceeded in part because of restrictions on commercial fishermen due to weak Kenai River late-run king salmon numbers. The sockeye salmon harvest of about 1.7 million was the second-smallest in the last decade, according to the season summary. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Feds declare economic disasters for Swan Lake, McKinley fires

Small business owners who can show that they lost customers because of the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula can now get low-interest federal loans to help them recover. The U.S. Small Business Administration declared the Kenai Peninsula and surrounding areas an “economic injury zone” due to the widespread Swan Lake Fire this summer. The fire, which started June 5 and burned more than 167,000 acres, threatened the Sterling Highway in August and burned across the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge between Sterling and Cooper Landing. Though firefighters controlled fire activity through the early summer and scaled back operations in July, a windstorm and exceptionally hot, dry conditions in mid-August caused the fire to flare again, crossing the Sterling Highway and threatening Cooper Landing with evacuation. Alaska’s exceptionally hot and dry summer saw a number of fires start and burn in areas they have not burned in the past. Because of the lack of rain on the Kenai Peninsula, the Swan Lake Fire was able to burn through alpine territory across the Mystery Hills and down into the popular Resurrection Pass Trail area. In East Anchorage, a brush fire in a wooded area in early July prompted a hasty response and evacuation orders among nearby residents. Hot, dry conditions with risks of high wind prompted forestry officials to declare a complete burn ban across the Kenai Peninsula for several weeks in August. A pair of destructive fires dubbed Deshka and McKinley also sprung up in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, burning dozens of properties from Talkeetna to Willow. Cooper Landing and Sterling are usually major destinations throughout the fall and summer for tourists, with plentiful hiking, fishing and camping opportunities. This summer, because of the difficulty of transportation and the heavy wildfire smoke, many visitors cancelled their trips, leaving business owners to swallow the shortfall. Though the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s sales tax figures for the third fiscal quarter have not yet been published, some small business owners estimated between a 5 and 20 percent revenue loss, said Cliff Cochran, Kenai Peninsula Center Director for the Alaska Small Business Development Center. The western peninsula was affected as well, with tourists from Anchorage not wanting to risk getting stuck if the fire closed the highway and the air quality significantly impacted by smoke. “In-state tourists from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley saw videos circulating on social media of the fire billowing over the highway, causing many of them to cancel trips down to the peninsula,” Cochran said in an email. “B&B and lodge owners complained that this occurred even when the fire was not anywhere near the highway and there was great weather with mountain views on the peninsula.” Air quality and threats of evacuation kept many tourists away from Cooper Landing, which depends heavily on the seasonal income from May to October. Firefighters and other personnel stationed in Cooper Landing buffered the impact some, but when they left, revenues dropped further as residents looked to conserve income after a poor summer, Cochran said. In some cases, small businesses reported their revenues down between 20 to 30 percent in September and October. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly appealed to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, who sent a request for a disaster declaration to the Small Business Administration on Oct. 2. About a week later, on Oct. 8, the agency granted the declaration for the Swan Lake Fire. The disaster declaration makes low-interest federal loans available for small businesses affected by the fire. Small business owners on the Kenai Peninsula and in the adjacent areas — including Kodiak, the Municipality of Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough, and the Lake and Peninsula Borough — can apply for assistance. Business owners in the affected area don’t have to show property damage, only economic injury, said Kevin Wynne, the public information officer for the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance in the West Field Operations Center. The interest rates are set at 4 percent for small businesses and 2.75 percent for private nonprofits. The loan funds can be used as working capital but not to replace lost revenue, Wynne said. All of the loans are worked out on a case-by-case basis as people apply. “(The rates) make recovery very affordable for small businesses,” he said. “One of the great things about the loans is they get a five-month deferral. They’re going to be low payments anyway, but (business owners) can spend all their resources in getting back up in running.” The Swan Lake Fire wasn’t the only disaster declared for Alaska’s summer. North of Anchorage, the McKinley Wildland Fire burned only 3,288 acres but caused much more property damage than the Swan Lake Fire. Ignited on Aug. 17, the fire had damaged 52 homes, three businesses and 84 outbuildings by the following night and threatened the Parks Highway, leading to road closures and traffic control. The SBA also declared a disaster for the McKinley Fire, though the conditions are a little different because buildings were damaged. In that area, homeowners are eligible for loans to help pay for repairs in addition to the small businesses in the area; in the Swan Lake Fire area, only small businesses are eligible. Homeowners can borrow up to $200,000 to replace or repair damaged real estate and up to $40,000 for damaged personal property. To date, the SBA has approved three homeowner loans for a total of $479,000 in the McKinley Fire area, Wynne said. The loans have a deadline, though. For homeowners in the McKinley Fire area, that’s Dec. 2. Small business owners in the McKinley Fire area have until July 1, 2020, and until July 8, 2020 in the Swan Lake Fire area. That’s in part because business owners have to get their paperwork in order, including tax documents and profit and loss statements, and that can take time, Wynne said. Small business owners can apply for loans online at the SBA’s website. “It’s generally as quickly as possible that they can apply,” he said. “Generally, for businesses, it’s within 21 days. The loan officer will call them and work with them to get the loan approved.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Premera grants $5.7M over three years for rural care

Programs financed by a grant from Alaska’s largest private individual health insurer are turning their eyes toward rural communities, where health outcomes tend to be the worst. Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Washington-based health insurer, announced a $5.7 million investment in the state Oct. 29, spread over three years and split among a handful of recipients. The overall intention of the grant is to improve rural health care access in a state that comprises about one-fifth of the land mass of the United States but where nearly half the state’s population lives in one urban area and the much of the rest is scattered across a largely roadless, largely undeveloped landscape. The majority of the investment — $3 million — will serve as seed money for a new Rural Health Care Fund, from which grants will be issued to address “equity, availability and access to quality health care in rural areas,” according to a press release from Premera. The fund will be managed by the Rasmuson Foundation and housed by the Alaska Community Foundation. In addition to three $100,000 grants to Norton Sound Health Corp., Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. and the Tanana Chiefs Conference to support community health aide/practitioner programs, the University of Alaska Anchorage will receive $1.77 million to expand its College of Nursing programs at four campuses, three of which are rural. The funds will also be used to increase recruitment efforts among Alaska Natives in rural areas. Another $700,000 will go to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, supporting the construction of its Anchorage-based Education and Development Center. The center provides Alaska Native-centered education for aspiring health care workers, particularly in rural areas, said Andy Teuber, chairman and president of ANTHC, in the press release. ANTHC has an Anchorage-based education center. However, the dental health aide, behavioral health aide and community health aide programs are in separate facilities at the moment; the grant funds will help build out the interior of the education center to bring all three programs under one roof, according to Shirley Young, ANTHC’s public relations and marketing manager. “Instead of housing the training programs in a variety of costly locations, which is how we have been operating, the students will benefit from offering co-location with inter-professional education on the Alaska Native Health Campus,” she wrote in an email. “Accessibility to quality education at a sustainable cost point is critical, especially considering Alaska’s current financial situation.” Young said having all the programs on the Anchorage campus will help provide students with culturally relevant training before going out to pursue jobs, many of which are in rural communities across Alaska. Increasing the number of qualified providers in rural areas remains a priority for ANTHC’s board of directors, she wrote. Health care disparities between rural and urban areas are well established, both in health outcomes and service availability. People living in the rural areas of the state tend to be poorer, are more likely to be uninsured and have less access to primary care. In 2016, more than two-thirds of the primary care providers in the state were located in the Anchorage or Mat-Su areas, according to a study from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. There were only 17 licensed primary care physicians in the Northern region and 37 in the Southwest region in 2016. Training more physicians is only part of the solution, according to the DHSS study; competition for clinicians is significant and training does not reduce unequal distribution of providers. The community health aide/practitioner program provides health professionals in many rural locations, but they are not licensed physicians of the same clinical level as a primary care physician. Improving access to nurses and physicians in rural areas of the state is the primary purpose of the grant, said Premera president and CEO Jeff Roe in a statement. “Many of Alaska’s communities are hundreds of miles from a regional medical center, and in most rural communities there is not an adequate number of physicians, primary and mental health care providers and sufficient facilities,” he said. “It is critical to invest in effective, long-term solutions to close the growing gap between urban and rural health care access.” UAA is placing the funding into recruitment and program expansion at its Bethel, Dillingham and Ketchikan campuses. Those three campuses have capacity for growth and community support, said Jeff Jessee, the dean of the College of Nursing and vice provost for University of Alaska health programs. UAA is partnering with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast for the programs, as the Ketchikan program is located on the UAS campus and the Bethel and Dillingham programs are on UAF campuses, he said. “All of our state universities understand there’s an enormous need for nurses across Alaska, and our long-term vision is to expand our nursing programs on other campuses as well,” he said. The University of Alaska system is under financial pressure due to state budget cuts, but UAA intends to design the program to be financially sustainable, Jessee said. The Premera funds will be used for startup and expansion costs, with between 40 to 50 new nursing students by the fifth year of the grant, he said. Tuition is the major source of revenue, and is intended to cover ongoing costs for the program. “The School of Nursing also has important community partners who have pledged consistent funding for our nursing programs in the state, and growing our nursing workforce remains a priority for the University of Alaska as a whole,” he said. We expect support to continue, because there’s widespread recognition of how essential nurses is to the future of our state.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bering Sea halibut bycatch increases as council considers cod options

Editor's note: This article has been edited to correct the coastwide bycatch numbers. The bycatch numbers across Alaska exceeded the fishery limits, but in individual areas the bycatch was lower in 2019 than in 2018. Bycatch increase in areas 4 CDE+CA, in the Bering Sea. In the Bering Sea, commercial fishermen caught more halibut as bycatch this year, though overall bycatch in Alaska fell. Data released preceding the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s upcoming interim meeting shows that almost all the regulatory areas of Alaska from Southeast to the Bering Sea — areas 2C through 4E, respectively — caught less halibut as bycatch in 2019 than they did in 2018, though the areas all still exceeded their fishery limits, with the exception of Area 4B. Coastwide, from California and British Columbia through the Bering Sea, bycatch decreased from a little more than 6 million pounds to about 5.89 million pounds, though bycatch in areas 4 CDE+CA increased from about 2.98 million pounds to about 3.22 million pounds. Overall, commercial fishermen have landed about 16.5 million pounds of halibut in Alaska in the 2019 season, 13 percent less than the fishery limit. Alaska made up most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality, with about 5.56 million pounds. The IPHC will hold its interim meeting Nov. 25 in Seattle to review the stock assessment and season information, among other information, prior to its full annual meeting scheduled for Feb. 3-7, 2020, in Anchorage, where the commission adopts its season limits and regulations. Most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality — the technical IPHC term for bycatch — went to the trawl fleet, as it has in the past. There was also a small increase in Southeast Alaska’s bycatch numbers, though the area doesn’t have a trawl fleet and overall catch was down from the 2018 season. Halibut bycatch is a sticky problem throughout Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The high-volume trawl fleet targets a variety of species, including flatfish, that share habitat with halibut. While longliners can use larger hooks to avoid catching immature halibut, trawlers use large nets that don’t necessarily predict what will come up. To control the bycatch, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets prohibited species catch, or PSC, limits; when the limit on bycatch is reached, the fishery is restricted or closed. In the case of the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, this has been happening more and more often. Declining total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Pacific cod increasingly shorten the season and pressure boats to work quickly, hoping to catch enough cod before the cap is reached. Because they work quickly, they increasingly may not take precautions to avoid bycatch, adding the pressure of the fishery closing more quickly as the PSC limit is reached. Combined with pressure on the stock from directed fishing and changing ocean conditions, researchers and stakeholders have raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the stock. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is working on a major program aimed partially to control halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea: rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, aiming to alleviate the pressure on the halibut there by eliminating what stakeholders call “the race for fish.” During the council’s meeting in October, the members approved a list of options and elements for preliminary analysis for the Pacific cod fishery, including a number of particulars for a cooperative-based limited access privilege program in the fishery. Within the purpose and need statement, reducing bycatch is identified as one of the goals. The North Pacific Fisheries Association’s members want to see permanent measures to reduce bycatch included in the program, including mechanisms to change the plan if bycatch isn’t reduced, and encouragement to transition to more selective gear types. “We are encouraged that bycatch reduction is a top priority for the Council, and an integral part of the Purpose and Needs Statement for this topic,” wrote NPFA President Malcolm Milne in a letter to the council. “However, we have increasing concerns about the council’s ability to achieve that intent through a program that, despite strategic design, still codifies use of and permanent access rights to gear with high bycatch rates.” Pacific cod is a high-volume fishery, while halibut, on the other hand, is a high-value fishery. To sustain the communities that depend on cod, the high volume needs to come in, wrote Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Chris Barrows in a letter to the council. The processors recognize that something needs to be done to address the race for fish but encouraged the council to consider the investment and dependence on cod of all sectors before moving forward with a cooperative based model for rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery. “All sectors are reliant on a healthy resource, improving bycatch, robust monitoring, and a safely prosecuted fishery,” he wrote. “As we make changes to better accomplish those objectives, we want to encourage inclusion and consideration of all dependent sectors, including shoreside processors and the communities in which we operate.” Both Pacific cod rationalization program and an abundance-based management program — which would allow PSC limits to flex with the biomass assessments in the Bering Sea rather than being fixed — have potential to address the issue, but the particulars are still unclear, said Peggy Parker, the executive director of the Halibut Association of North America. The abundance-based management program is meant to help alleviate the problem of a non-directed fishery still taking Pacific halibut when a directed fishery is shut down or curtailed because of a lack of sufficient fish. “We could have a situation where the directed fishery is shut down, but bycatch is still allowed,” she said. “I really recognize the strong feelings they have not to shut down the flatfish fishery, the pollock fishery, any of that … We don’t want to shut down these really important-to-the-national-economy fisheries, but we also don’t want to lend a hand to what could be severely damaging to the halibut stock.” The bycatch issue in the Bering Sea goes outside its geographic confines, too, she said — halibut migrate extensively from west to east. With heavy fishing pressure on all age groups in the Bering Sea, the question extends to the other regulatory areas whether the Pacific halibut stock can withstand that level of bycatch. In either case, both measures are far to implementation yet. “I don’t know if it’s going to be enough, because we don’t really have a good clear picture yet of what either of those are going to look like,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Marijuana board wrangles with unincorporated area licenses

As more cannabis entrepreneurs seek to open businesses all over Alaska, the Marijuana Control Board is dealing with the question of how to provide adequate process for unincorporated areas. So far, the majority of cannabis businesses are in the urban areas of Anchorage, Wasilla/Palmer, Fairbanks or Juneau. There is a smattering in smaller urban areas like Kenai/Soldotna, Homer, Bethel, Ketchikan, Kodiak and North Pole. But the board has granted a few licenses to businesses in communities that are small, unincorporated and aren’t even represented by a borough government. When applicants are looking at establishing a retail, cultivation or manufacturing facility for cannabis products, there is an extensive publishing process involving running public notices in newspapers or radio stations and providing notice to a local government, which could voice objection to a license and provide a platform for the public to testify about it. In the case of unincorporated and rural communities, there is no local government, and there may or may not be a publication of general circulation to publish a notice in. One aspiring business in Tok has explored these problems throughout the application process. 907 Promos, a holding company, bought land in Tok with the intention of opening a retail shop called “Tokin Up,” but has run into snags that have held it up since February. Because Tok does not have a local government, the owners had to obtain signatures from a majority of the residents within a five-mile radius of the proposed location for a petition to the Marijuana Control Board. Tok is a spread-out community, and the most recent complete census was done nearly 10 years ago, in 2010. Initially, the applicants used data from the Alaska Department of Commerce and Community Development, but that proved to be less than precise. Determining exactly how many people lived within the five-mile radius involved drawing a digital fence on Google Maps and dropping a pin on every single rooftop, according to a letter from Lance Christian Wells, the legal firm representing 907 Promos. “They printed off each grid section to provide a ‘current map’ of Tok,” wrote legal assistant Jessika Smith in a letter to the board. “Applicants drove up and down every street and driveway identified from the ground, satellite, or sky, knocking on doors to gain support and collect signatures.” Smith wrote that the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, had told them this process had worked in other small communities, but when they presented the map they developed as a household count, it was denied. They switched to using a mathematical model, basing a population estimate on the number of households, but it came up much higher than the census count. When they disregarded outbuildings and abandoned residences, it came up far smaller. So the applicants and AMCO approached the state demographer for help. The Alaska Department of Labor’s demographer, Eric Sandberg, estimated that there were approximately 869 people older than 21 in the area. The applicants also ran into snags with public notice, because Tok doesn’t have its own newspaper, Smith wrote. Radio stations either didn’t offer advertising or wouldn’t advertise for a cannabis facility because of their federal funding. “Seemingly out of options, licensees were able to gain approval from AMCO to provide public notice through unconventional means — by mailing public notice to each and every PO Box in Tok once a week for three weeks,” Smith wrote. “Residents do not use home addresses for mailing or have mailboxes within their community, so this should have covered everyone living in or around Tok.” Throughout the process, residents of Tok who opposed the opening of a retail facility submitted public comment to the board, with comments dating back to April. The applicants managed to gather 617 signatures as of September, with 579 needed, said AMCO Director Erika McConnell during the Marijuana Control Board’s Oct. 22 meeting. However, only 490 of those people were vetted as living within the radius and being older than 21, she said. Johnathan Guest, one of the applicants with 907 Promos, told the board they felt confident in the community support as long as the board decided on a number of signatures they needed. “We absolutely feel we can meet the standard if you allow us to add signatures after the vetted number,” he said. Board member Loren Jones said it seemed unlikely the board would run into this situation again — Tok is a fairly large community for an unincorporated one without a local government. Most unincorporated communities in the unorganized borough tend to be very small, like Naukati Bay in Southeast, where the board previously granted a limited cultivation license. Naukati Bay has a population of about 113. The board voted to postpone the decision on the petition until its November meeting, until AMCO could verify more of the signatories’ addresses. The topic of how to provide adequate voice to neighbors of cannabis establishments in unincorporated areas has come up before at the board. In 2017, Talkeetna’s first retail cannabis shop opened on its Main Street, with approval from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Some residents of Talkeetna, which is unincorporated, voiced opposition to it, but the borough’s code allowed it. Marijuana Control Board chairman Mark Springer said during the board’s discussion on legislative priorities that in addition to recognizing tribal governments as local governments for the purpose of protesting cannabis licenses, the state could consider nonprofit community associations — essentially, community organizations recognized by the state that represent the interests of unincorporated communities, receive state and federal grants, provide services or enter into contracts or agreements. “If we had that in Tok, we would not be having this issue right now,” he said. Other legislative priorities for the board include evaluating the current cannabis tax structure for possible reform, transporting between license types, indemnification for minors assisting in investigations, prohibiting personal solvent-based manufacturing, clarifying the personal plant cultivation limit, setting possession and transportation limits for concentrates and edibles and requiring a majority of the board to adopt regulations. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board votes to keep Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage

The tug of war over the location for the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting seems to be over — with Anchorage as the winner. After going back and forth over the location for more than a year, the board members voted 4-3 Oct. 24 at their annual work session to keep the February 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage. They also voted unanimously to drop a policy previously adopted that recommended the board rotate the meeting every three years between the three major communities of the region: Palmer/Wasilla, Anchorage and Kenai/Soldotna. Board members Fritz Johnson, Gerad Godfrey and Marit Carlson-Van Dort voted against the motion to hold the meeting in Anchorage, with members Morisky, Israel Payton, John Jensen and John Wood voting in favor. Board members primarily cited cost and the neutrality of Anchorage as a meeting location for the decision at the work session. The board last met on the central Kenai Peninsula for a full meeting in 1999; it met there for a work session in 2016. At its annual work session in 2017, the board voted to hold the 2020 meeting in Anchorage; in March 2018, the members reconsidered and voted move it to Kenai/Soldtona. The board later revisited the decision in January 2019, but after objections from the stakeholders about a lack of fair notice, the Alaska State Ombudsman investigated and ruled that the board needed to do it again — this time with fair notice. The governments of the cities of Kenai and Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough offered in a joint letter to provide the board with free meeting space, with an eye toward making the decision based on cost easier. The area has enough restaurants, hotel rooms, transportation options and airplane service to meet the needs of the board, the city managers and borough mayor wrote in the joint letter. Multiple other commenters wrote that the cost for stakeholders coming from the Kenai Peninsula is higher than those who live in Anchorage or the Mat-Su, who can stay at home rather than in hotels. The board takes cost into consideration along with a menu of other variables, including internet access, adequate facility space, community relationship with the board and travel time for the board members and Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff, among other factors. However, because many Fish and Game commercial fisheries staff members live on the central Kenai Peninsula and the local governments offered meeting space for free, the cost differentials between the three locations were surprisingly similar, said Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight. Board chairman Reed Morisky said he saw logistical issues with the area, including how spread out the area near the likely meeting space would be. Anchorage has more hotel rooms, restaurants and amenities within walking distance than Kenai/Soldotna does, he said. Johnson argued in favor of holding the meeting in Kenai/Soldotna, saying the board members get a valuable insight from being present in a community they may not when they don’t meet there, given that not all stakeholders have the money to travel to Anchorage for multiple days at a time. “I think over the years the board has been good at acknowledging that it’s important that we travel to the places that these industries are centered,” he said. “I think that by abandoning that notion, we may lose that connection with the stakeholders for whom this industry is their very backyard. And that would be a shame.” Morisky said sportfishermen and subsistence users are stakeholders in the Upper Cook Inlet fishery, too, many of whom live in the Anchorage area. One of the main contentions commenters asking the board to meet on the Kenai Peninsula have asserted is that the majority of people who attend the meetings, even in Anchorage, are from the Kenai Peninsula, and that Anchorage residents don’t attend as much even when the meetings are nearby. Morisky noted that even if people are not actively involved in the deliberations, they may still be following the decisions. “Just because people aren’t necessarily at meetings or don’t own a particular permit, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a common ownership in our resource,” he said. After the vote, ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in response to Johnson’s comments that he was aware the board needed to stay connected to the fishing communities. “It’s a careful balancing act between cost and maintaining our (citizen advisory committee) system and maintaining the board structure,” he said. “To me, the clear mechanism that I want to do is make sure we continue a strong AC structure and we can bring those people into our meetings to engage no matter where they are. But I would hate to jeopardize that cost, in terms of our meeting locations.” At the same March 2018 meeting where the members voted to move the meeting to the Kenai Peninsula, the board accepted the policy that recommended rotation of the meetings between the three major communities. Former board member Al Cain, who proposed the idea, said it was meant to take the politics out of choosing the meeting location every three years. At the time, it passed narrowly. Board member Jensen said at the work session Oct. 24 that he didn’t think the rotational policy was fair and supported repealing it. “I don’t think it’s our purview to hold the future boards’ feet to the fire as far as meetings go,” Jensen said. “I’m not really supportive of this policy; I don’t even think we can do it. I don’t think it’s within our authority to tell a board 10 years from now where they’re going to have their meeting.” Board member Payton agreed, noting that he had been the one absent when the policy passed. The policy didn’t tie the board members’ hands — it was only a recommendation — but the public might not see it that way in the future, he said. “It’s what the board decided at the time that was just for all stakeholders, and I think the board should continue to have that flexibility and wisdom to decide what’s just for everyone and decide where we want to hold our meeting,” he said. Johnson reminded the board they had passed this a year ago to avoid some of the conflict and politics from the decision, and member Wood suggested approaching the local governments in the various communities to see if they had suggestions for how to alternate the location for the meeting. Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to discontinue the policy. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Efforts underway to streamline fisheries disaster relief

With an increasing number of fisheries disaster requests coming from all over the United States, members of Congress and the federal government are looking for ways to improve the relief process. Summer 2018 brought disappointing results for many fishermen across Alaska, particularly for sockeye salmon fishermen in the central Gulf of Alaska, but only two fisheries were officially granted federal disaster declarations: the 2018 Chignik sockeye salmon run and the 2018 Pacific cod fishery. While many other fishermen at least got a few fish to fill their wallets, Chignik fishermen had virtually no season, and Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen saw their total allowable catch reduced by 80 percent from 2017 because of low abundance. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced a dozen commercial fishery disaster declarations Sept. 25 for the 2018 calendar year. Congress appropriated $165 million for fisheries disaster relief, to be allocated according to the losses in revenue for the selected fisheries. It’s the second time in recent years there have been disastrously poor returns to some fisheries. In 2016, the failed pink salmon run across the Gulf of Alaska left many fishermen holding empty nets, particularly in Kodiak and Prince William Sound, resulting in a disaster declaration in 2017 and eventually $56 million in relief funds for stakeholders. However, because of the long federal application and funding process, fishermen just received those disbursements in July 2019, nearly three years after the disaster. The slow process isn’t unique to Alaska. Senate Bill 2346, introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., in July, seeks to speed up that process, in part by expediting relief funds being disbursed to fishermen. It also seeks to add avenues for relief for non-commercial fishermen, including charter operators. Fisheries disasters can be awarded in a variety of circumstances, including natural disasters, undetermined causes or causes beyond the control of fisheries managers. However, the current process only includes commercial fisheries, said Chris Oliver, the assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “I think the law should provide clarity and direction to us as to whether we could and should include (charter or sport fisheries) revenue losses in the calculation,” he said in a Sept. 25 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. NMFS is aware of the delay problem and is actively developing regulations for the disaster process that will streamline and improve it, Oliver wrote in his testimony to the committee. He wrote that SB 2346 aligns with many of the federal administration’s priorities for streamlining the process, such as providing deadlines for key steps in the process and clear requirements for what requestors need to submit. Rachel Baker, the deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wrote in her testimony to the committee that while the process of declaring a disaster is well understood, distributing relief monies is less clear. The delay may make the process seem less useful to stakeholders, she wrote. “Under the current process, there is little to no guidance for requestors or the public describing the steps in the process or the criteria being used by the federal government to evaluate proposed spending plans for disaster relief funds,” she wrote. “This lack of clarity makes it challenging to navigate the process and inform affected fishery participants and the public about the potential outcomes and timelines for evaluation of a proposed spending plan and the distribution of disaster relief funds.” During the hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan asked Oliver if the bill should provide more guidance to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NMFS on how to determine disaster declarations and funding. “I think part of the point of the bill is that NOAA and, significantly, (the Office of Management and Budget) might have too much discretion under current law and not enough direction when it comes to the fisheries disaster process,” Sullivan said. “(Wicker’s) bill remedies that.” Ron Warren, the director of fish policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, wrote in his comments that Washington has seen an increase in both the frequency and severity of fisheries disasters due to natural disasters since 2008, disrupting the state’s significant fishing economy. The delay in relief funding following the 2015 coho disaster was “especially concerning,” he wrote, as the request from Washington had been fast-tracked. “Given that NOAA scientists have noted another marine heatwave occurring off Washington’s coasts since June of this year, which may be comparable to that observed in 2014, our fisheries could face another disastrous year in 2020,” he wrote. “If that occurs, the local businesses within our fishing communities cannot wait another three years for any potential relief. These processes must be streamlined and improved — it’s that simple.” The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife raised a few concerns about the bill in its current form, noting that the bill should ensure fast-tracked disaster relief funding shouldn’t come from other areas of NOAA operations and that fisheries remain a priority, especially when competing with aquaculture operations, Warren wrote. In their comments, multiple senators connect climate change impacts with increasing instability in fisheries. Outside Alaska, multiple Florida fisheries have been impacted for the past four years by increasingly pervasive algal blooms, and the flooding in the Mississippi River basin in 2019 led to freshwater incursion into the delta and Lake Pontchartrain, killing the majority of the oysters in the Mississippi Sound. Washington state has asked for two fisheries disaster declarations in 2018 and 2019, following a sweeping coho salmon disaster declaration from 2015. Warren told the committee that scientists have connected the recent decline in salmon runs to “the Blob,” a persistent ocean temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean from 2013-16 that was connected to a number of ecosystem disruptions. Oliver said in answer to a question that NMFS doesn’t have “the specific data” to say whether climate change will definitively increase fisheries disasters, though scientists have generally agreed that warmer ocean waters have contributed to an increase in harmful algal blooms and increased hurricane frequency. “I think that we are seeing movement of fish from one area to another,” Oliver said. “Whether those particular fish patterns of movements as they’re affected by warm water result in disasters would be difficult for me to speculate. Whether those changes result in fisheries disasters or not, we are in a constant pattern of trying to understand that so we can respond.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]


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